Working to Make Vision Zero a Reality

Washington Bike Law doesn’t just represent individual clients, we work to make Vision Zero a reality by holding road designers responsible for unsafe streets.

Vision Zero is an international strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, and equitable mobility for everyone.

Washington Bike Law recently settled a case against the City of Kent involving a dangerous crosswalk, so we can now share with you some things we learned litigating it.

Vision Zero is an ethical framework stemming from the premise that it is unacceptable for people to suffer serious injuries or death as a result of traffic violence. Before Vision Zero, serious injuries and loss of life were merely factors to be considered in the cost-benefit analysis of transportation engineers.

Vision Zero was first approved by the Swedish Parliament in 1997. Seattle produced its first Vision Zero plan in 2015. The state of Washington has been producing its Target Zero Highway Safety Plans since 2000. Washington and Seattle’s plans both call for zero deaths or serious injuries on our roads by 2030.

What about Kent? Here is an excerpt from a deposition of its Transportation Engineering Manager and officially designated speaking agent:

We also took the deposition of Kent’s Police Research and Development Analyst, who was designated as the City’s speaking agent on Vision Zero. She talked about “shared responsibly” and questioned whether drivers even had a duty to stop for pedestrians at intersections. We followed up with her:

We have previously written about how Kent’s streets are dangerous for pedestrians, and these depositions show what the people at the top are thinking (or not thinking).

In another deposition, we asked Kent’s Transportation Engineering Manager:

The intersection in our case involved a marked crosswalk for the Interurban Trail that crosses Willis Street at 74th Ave W. People wanting to use the crosswalk always approach a red light because it defaults to red. They must use what is sometimes called a “beg button” to get a green light.

Meanwhile, drivers approaching the same “T” intersection from 74th Ave have two lanes: one that can only turn left; and one that can only turn right. Drivers in the left-turn lane can only drive through the marked crosswalk. The signals for all the car lanes turn green simultaneously, regardless of whether someone has pressed the beg button to cross the road safely.

This intersection is shown from above on Google Maps:

We asked Kent’s Transportation Engineering Manager how its design compared to the design of demolition derby tracks:

Kent claimed that its design was safe because drivers should know that they have a duty to stop at crosswalks—even though its own speaking agent wasn’t sure what constitutes a crosswalk.

According to the Vision Zero Network, the “Vision Zero approach recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities.”

This means that streets need to be designed to be safe even without perfect human behavior. While road users are required to follow the rules of the road, if users regularly fail to comply (for instance, not stopping for people in crosswalks) then system designers—traffic engineers and lawmakers—need to change the system to make it safer.

This ethical platform loop is illustrated below:

We asked Kent’s Transportation Engineering Manager about this:

Vision Zero means that governments must take into account not just what they think users should do on their streets, but also what they actually do, like not stopping for people in crosswalks.

Vision Zero policies will make our streets safer and better, but there is a learning curve. Road designers, politicians, and the public all need to understand that crashes resulting in serious injuries and deaths on our roads are not accidents.

They are preventable, but we all need to be part of their prevention. At Washington Bike Law, we’d very much prefer for people to not be seriously injured and killed on our streets. But when they are, we work to hold people—and road designers—responsible.

While the City of Kent’s insurance ultimately paid to compensate our client, Kent has yet to make that crosswalk safe. We attempted to negotiate safety improvements, but the City refused. We hope than it will improve it before someone else is seriously injured or killed. Unfortunately, we cannot force our leaders to do the right thing—but litigation and significant verdicts can help make our streets safer.

We still have much work to do, particularly with people who don’t follow this issue. Someone in our community recently wrote in the Seattle Times:

The nonprofit Transportation Alternatives disagrees:

Not accepting that crashes are just accidents is an easy way you can help achieve Vision Zero. There’s even a hashtag, #CrashNotAccident, but please don’t use it while driving.